Woodend’s only Indian restaurateur finds cohesion & support

By Indira Laisram
Sam aka Sukhjit Singh

In this small regional town of Woodend, everybody knows Sam or Sammy as he is fondly called. Not because Sizzler Restobar is the only Indian restaurant that Sam aka Sukhjit Singh runs with his partner Ashwin Singh, but, because in Sam’s world, food and dining seems inextricable from friendships. A perfect host, he is able to engage and carry on conservations with all kinds of people.

Quite naturally, the locals support him. And Sam believes it is this support that has sustained the business during the current pandemic.

It was one winter day in 2017 that Sam came to Woodend to look for business opportunities with little idea about the place. “Being winter, it resembled a ghost town,” he recalls.

Back in Melbourne, where he was based prior to moving, he asked friends if they had been to Woodend and the reply he got was, ‘It is beautiful’. It got Sam thinking: if everyone is saying it is beautiful, something has to be there!

On his second field visit, Sam met people who were “very welcoming and laidback”. He felt an instant connect as did his business partner Ashwin, who said, “Let’s just give it a go. It’s going to be just one Indian restaurant over here”.

So, that very year the duo started Sizzler Restobar with a menu that spans the northern, coastal and southern regions of India. Having been in the culinary and hospitality industry since 2006 in Australia, Sam had the experience and the know-how to move forward.

Focussing only on dining and takeaways, it took nearly 15 months, says Sam, to make even. With the population of Woodend sitting between 5000 to 7000, he believes it took almost a year to get in people with 85 per cent of the business initially running on takeout.

“I guess in a small town, word of mouth is your best marketing. It took longer but it worked better,” says Sam.

Sizzler Restobar

Each year the business has been different, but it has been growing, says Sam. This year the novel coronavirus has managed to slightly upend the business the way it has for everyone in the industry. But for the support from the community, it would have affected the team a lot more.

Living in country Victoria has taught this Punjab-born chef and businessman one thing: that if you do the right thing and you do something good, support is forthcoming. “The locals support their local businesses first before they go out. It is a very good community feeling.”

Not having experienced something like COVID-19 before, Sam had to pivot online. “The business got reduced to just takeout and contactless deliveries. While we did have an online ordering system, we did not have an online payment system. We set that up to make people comfortable and dispense as much as we could with the usage of cash.”

Sam also turned his attention to making patrons feel safe. “We used to tell them that they didn’t need to come inside the restaurant if they were picking up the food, we would take the machine to them. Also, between each order we kept a gap of at least 5-10 minutes to make sure we had only one customer at a time in the restaurant. We felt it was our duty to make people feel safe and comfortable.”

Victoria’s first lockdown didn’t affect Sam’s business too much, he admits, but the second one did leave an impact with the first four weeks “really slow”.  But, says Sam, it was what the community was doing together to keep the numbers down. Stay low, stay home.

However, the gratitude returned to restaurants as people turned up for dining once regulations came in. The restaurant can now house 10 people. While it is keeping the town alive, Sam rues that in a small country town it is hard to do the second seating. With the weather permitting, he hopes to have comfortable arrangements outside in the coming days.

Ashwin Singh

Sam, who is in his early 30s now, came of age professionally, after he arrived in Australia in 2006 to study cooking and started working as a kitchen hand, graduating to an assistant cook, then chef. He has also worked in the front desk, and as such, knows the whole functioning of the hotel industry. In fact, while with the Hilton in Sydney, he was in 2011 nominated for the nationwide ‘Best Employee of The Year’ award.

Having lived more than half his life in Australia, Sam has found in Woodend the network and support that give him the cohesion that he did not have. His parents, who visit him often from India, too find themselves very welcomed here. “Woodend has given us so much love and respect. Every house that I go to, I get welcomed, the kids know me. They don’t say let’s go to Sizzler restaurant but to Sammy’s.”

And no one who has been born and grown up in India can really live without the tastes of home. That is what Sam brings to his restaurant. Fortunately for him, many in Woodend have travelled to India or are originally from England, which makes his Chicken Tikka Masala really popular or, even more, the Butter Chicken.

Helped by a staff of nine, Sam’s mantra for success is: good food, good customer service and cleanliness. “Obviously, we are not a fine dine but we try and give five-star service to customers.”

On the personal front, life has changed with Covid as he can’t see his friends, but on the professional front, things are unchanged except that “work has slowed a bit”.

Nonetheless, Sam wears the smile of a happy man for whom moving to this small haven, located about halfway between Melbourne and Bendigo, has been the best decision of life. He values the support of the locals and their friendships, some of whom are inquisitive, in a good way, about his background or turban.

As the only Indian restaurant in this regional town, Sam says he carries the responsibility of being a true ambassador of Indian food. “If I am not here tomorrow, if someone else comes in, I don’t want the public to be scared, I want them to remember that all Indians are the same.”

Besides food, Sam indeed thrives on great community life and friendships.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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